California Epicures Omit not the Beer
Dr. Marcus E. Crahan (1901-1978) was a psychiatrist and long-time Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Jail. Apart from his considerable importance in gastronomy he is remembered for investigating the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
Crahan was from a prominent California family established for generations in the State. He was a bon vivant, bibliophile, and key early member of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California (originally, the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles).
This group is among the first American branches of the London-based International Wine and Food Society, established in 1933 by the French-born culinary writer and wine expert André L. Simon.
Simon was President and the Briton A.J.A. Symons, Secretary. Simon edited the Society’s influential Wine and Food Journal.
The New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters of the WFS were established between 1933 and 1935, a product of Simon’s indefatigable missionary efforts that ranged around the world. Many more chapters, in the U.S. and on other continents, were formed in subsequent decades.
The Southern California branch continues today and unlike many branches has a somewhat exclusive aura. Many newer branches – California has about 20 in total – accept new members on application. The Southern California branch still vets new members.
The website of the International Wine and Food Society explains that each branch maintains its own traditions, which permits a degree of autonomy in selection of members. Nonetheless, all branches must follow general IWFS policies. These include the promotion of gastronomy, wine culture, and food education.
In 1955, 20 years after the Southern California branch was founded, Crahan prepared a comprehensive history of the group, which you can read here. It is an invaluable record that describes early branch dinners and other activities, and the IWFS in general.
The Los Angeles branch counted many socially prominent Californians, an elite if you will. Key members included W.I. Converse, Sr., from the wine industry, and Dr. Phil Hanna, another medico.
Nonetheless their culinary and wine adventures disclosed a questing spirit, one rather in tune with today’s cuisine ethos. The members tasted and drank in fact from a wide geographical and cultural range.
By 1955 the group had held no less than 155 sessions. Even by 1937-1938 Crahan states the group had engaged in every kind of tasting and dinner it ever would. These included a prophetic Chilean wine tasting and dinner, an Armenian dinner, Swedish and English dinners, and a foray into Peruvian cuisine and pisco brandy.
Wines of all types were extensively sampled including from the restored (post-Repeal) American wine business although it was still finding its legs in those years.
The onset of the Nazi era seemingly did not deter the group from sampling German wine. In April 1938 German (and Alsatian) wines were included in some tastings.
Andre Simon even published a book, German Wines, in 1939 that apparently was supported by Germany’s Ministry of Agriculture. Until the war directly engaged America such activities were not viewed askance by general public opinion. Perhaps the L.A. epicureans came to regret these dubious actions, but it is part of their history.
Crahan’s book includes a Simon bibliography, a lengthy and comprehensive listing of works. It is impressive for someone who left school at 17 and was writing in a second language. A letter from Simon to Crahan is reproduced that gives important history of the International Wine and Food Society.
Beer and Wine of the Country
Did the Los Angeles group ignore beer? Not at all. It held at least one full-scale beer tasting, on September 7, 1938. Nowhere in the book does Crahan give any indication that beer was considered inferior to the members’ (always primary) interest in wine.
At the time, this approach to beer was unusual, certainly in upper echelon society. Perhaps California by its nature – the recent settlement history, the multi-cultural cast, the climate – favoured a more inclusive approach to beer than society elsewhere.
The L.A. branch gave an award each year for the best non-wine beverage tasted. Acme Bock, brewed in California, consistently won. Clearly, the Society was willing, where appropriate, to place domestic brewing on a par with reputed international brands.
Carlsberg, from Denmark, won the award in 1939, an example of its longstanding eminence. (Whether merited today is another question).
In this light, is it any surprise modern craft brewing was birthed in California in the 1970s? In some small part Dr. Crahan’s band of epicureans deserves credit for the modern beer revival. One way or another such interests tend to penetrate the general culture, even as decades later it can be difficult to trace their influence.
California wine, for its part, figured from the beginning in the group’s activities. As quality and availability grew so did good California wines in the tastings. The branch organized tours of some of the wineries, in Santa Clara for example.
Crahan published another book devoted solely to California wines. Fellow member Maynard McFie published a California wine commentary in 1941, perhaps the first to appear after commercial winemaking resumed in 1933.
The book makes clear that during WW II the group ceased most of its activities but still held small gatherings. As I discussed earlier, the New York branch of the IWFS continued its tasting programme between 1942 and 1945.
The war years enabled gastronomic societies to consider American viticulture from a new angle, from necessity as wines from the traditional foreign countries such as France and Germany were not available.
The enforced focus on local and hemispheric wines was part of the groundwork by which American wines gained a quality image decades later.
Below are a couple of pages from Dr. Crahan’s prologue. He eloquently explains how the mingling Yankee and Spanish cultures in California produced a unique gastronomy. This blending phenomenon was to be repeated many times for other cuisines in America, the modern Cal-Mex is a good example for California.
In general, the L.A. branch approached food and drink in a way similar to today’s podcasts, Food Network shows, and other media that help publicize and shape food and wine culture.
What has changed is the democratization factor: what was once mainly a hobby or networking tool for a societal elite has gone mainstream, at least, to a much greater degree than in the 1940 and 50s.
Still, all branches of the IWFS and not least imo the Los Angeles group established in 1934 played their part in this future, given how their influence spread via food and wine journalism, food and wine industry practices, cookbook publishing, and indeed the creation of further branches of IWFS.
Note re images: all images above are via the HathiTrust digital library, from the book linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.